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Jury Hears Testimony in Libby Perjury Trial

January 25, 2007 at 6:30 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: The trial of Lewis Scooter Libby, the vice president’s former chief of staff, began this week at the federal courthouse in Washington. Libby is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for lying during a federal investigation into the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity to the press in 2003.

Plame is the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who publicly challenged evidence the Bush administration cited for invading Iraq.

Carol Leonnig is covering the trial for The Washington Post. She joins us now for an update.

Carol, the trial opened this week with a real surprise from the defense team. Explain the case that they’re trying to make.

CAROL LEONNIG, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, hello, Jeff.

And, yes, it was a surprise. The defense for Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, said that, in addition to Mr. Libby not having great memories and probably misspeaking about his conversations with reporters to a grand jury, he also believed that he had been a victim, hung out to dry by the White House, that was eager to save their top political strategist, Karl Rove.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, as you said, up to now, he had been — they had been saying that he had forgotten these calls.

CAROL LEONNIG: Yes.

Remember, if you will, that Scooter Libby is accused of lying to the FBI, lying to a grand jury, and trying to obstruct a criminal investigation into who leaked information to reporters about a covert or a secret CIA officer, Valerie Plame, to the press.

And he is saying that: I did misspeak, and I might have misremembered, but I had a very stressful job, with a lot of national security concerns, al-Qaida bombings, potential assassinations of the president, foreign dignitaries, and, really, in his view, reporter conversations were a snippet of conversation that was insignificant to him.

Libby as a 'scapegoat'?

JEFFREY BROWN: This notion of being the scapegoat, a little confusing. I wonder if it's clearer to you. Does it set up a kind of split in the White House between the president's staff and the vice president's staff? Is that what they're going for here?

CAROL LEONNIG: It's the fascinating new question circulating all over in law firms and in newsrooms everywhere in Washington.

There are a lot of legal experts who tell me that what they have seen about this claim has very little what you might describe as legal weight. How exactly does the idea that you were a victim, a political victim, who was scapegoated by the White House after a criminal investigation began, how does that relate to whether or not you misspoke or lied to a grand jury and to the FBI months earlier?

There are some who think this may be a trial strategy, that, in a city where Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans, that demonizing Rove and separating Libby from Karl Rove and the Bush administration may help Libby, in some respects.

The role of the war

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in the meantime, prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald tells a very different story. And he has -- he stuck with it this week, right?

CAROL LEONNIG: He sure did.

You may remember, through lots of court filings, Fitzgerald has said that this case is not about the war, in Iraq. It's about a man who lied in a leak information, and who is now going to be held accountable.

But Fitzgerald, though a straight shooter, according to the judge and according to all of our experiences thus far, really has made this case a lot about the war. He has described a battle that was going on, in which the vice president's office, and specifically Libby, at the direction of the vice president, was trying to rebut this criticism, fight it off, discredit somebody who was questioning the administration and its justification for war in Iraq.

And, point by point by point, it's one administration official after the other who says: Scooter Libby and I talked about Valerie Plame or talked about Wilson and his wife a month or several weeks before he says he learned about this from a reporter.

The administration in 2003

JEFFREY BROWN: And that's what happened today, with a witness who -- Cathie Martin -- who had worked for Vice President Dick Cheney, right?

CAROL LEONNIG: That's right.

Cathie Martin's significance is particularly important, because she's the first witness -- four witnesses have taken the stand so far -- she's the first witness to say -- to be able to describe working closely with Cheney and Libby during this volatile period in the summer of 2003, when the administration was on the defensive about the war in Iraq. It had just started. No weapons of mass destruction were being found.

And Cathie Martin's testimony was sort of inside that battle in the vice president's office. What were the strategies that were going on? And she describes a very active and aggressive vice president.

We have reported a little bit about this already last year, but she brought to life this vice president who was deputizing his chief aide, Libby, and others to get in there, stop the press from saying this. Here are some talking points that he dictated personally to his staff, what should they say to the press about Ambassador Joe Wilson and his claims that the intelligence was all wrong.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, Carol, we just have a minute, but you have just raised what has gotten the most attention this week is this notion that we're getting an inside look at the Bush administration during that period.

You're sitting in the courtroom every day. Do you sense that? Are you getting that kind of picture?

CAROL LEONNIG: You know, it's a wonderful question, because it feels as though we're reliving the summer of 2003, but in a new and even more painful way.

By that, I mean the defense and the prosecution are highlighting all of the rivalries and the bitter alliances and the strategizing within the administration over what to do about a war that wasn't going well and that didn't look, at least at first blush, like it had been properly justified.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Carol Leonnig, thanks again.

CAROL LEONNIG: Thank you.